Play-overs
The Complete Hymn

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Introduction
The play-over sets the tone entirely. Get this wrong and much that follows will likely go wrong too.
The Principles
The Play-over has to:
  • Identify the tune,
  • Set the style or mood,
  • Set the pitch,
  • Set the pace,
  • Identify the exact moment when singing should start.

You, Dear Organist, are the Orchestra and Conductor rolled into one! If you have never done any conducting, you should to do some training in this area. Even if you are professional, take some time out to study conducting! It does not come naturally and I have seen many an unprepared professional struggle, especially in the world of Opera and Oratorio.

Looking at the details a bit more:

You are the CONDUCTOR!!

Identify the tune
Conventionally this has meant playing the first two lines of the hymn; it works vaguely some of the time but there are many complications regarding other aspects of the play-over as outlined below. Yes, congregations do know their hymns by the first lines, but in some instances you should be looking at the chorus or refrain if there is one. This is sometimes much stronger:
  • "Rejoice, rejoice" in O come, O come Emmanuel
  • "Shine! Jesus, shine!" in Lord the light of your love is shining

To help identify the tune, try soloing it on the Great, or Choir if you have one; this helps to bring out the tune from the many harmonics that organs sound. Also remember to shorten notes that will be repeated immediately (see graphic). A succession of crotchets for example, should be played as quavers with quaver rests between. Also remember, never couple a solo manual to the pedals.

  Set the style
The play-over should be soft for the more reflective hymns but strong for a grand hymn.

Set the pitch
If you have a choir, the pitch set in most hymn books will be fine. But always be sure that your congregation can reach those high notes. The circumstances will matter. Jesus Christ is risen today will sound fine in C in a large church on Easter Sunday; but at a sunrise service in the open air, sung in A would be quite high enough.

Set the pace
This is a key part of getting your play-over right:

  • Practice the exact speed beforehand;
  • Get the pace in your head before starting;
  • Just because you have a large church building does not mean it must be slower;
  • Never use a rallentando to indicate that your congregation should sing.

Supplementary notes on the pace of your hymns:

  • Do not ral. at the end of each verse; the hymn will get slower and slower;
  • Count rests fully; do not rush through them;
  • Beware hymns in 3:4. They often drag; see if the bars pair up into 6:8 to give an easier feel to the music.
 
  Identify the exact moment when singing should start
There is a lot here that does and does not work which is summarised in the table below. You will need to explore this for yourself. But take a look at some of the examples and try them out.
The following does not work very well

Legato style - rhythm and pace get lost
Rallentando - kills the pace - only use it at the end of a hymn
Pause and wait two beats of silence esp. if slow

The following works

Rhythmic approach tailored to each hymn
Finish play-over on last line if possible
Design to go straight in to verse or use an obvious bridge

 
  Hymn Tune Structure
A crucial area for study here is what the tune does; are parts of it repeated? In CAMBERWELL the third line of the melody is the same as the first line for the first seven notes, so your play-over can start there and run through to the end very smoothly. Several hymns start like that.

There are many AABA hymns. By this I mean the music for lines 1, 2 & 4 are identical or nearly so. This will affect your play-over and how you piece together a bridge. The Volume details these hymn structures where lines are repeated; use this to help you design your play-over and bridge. A golden rule with these appears to include: Do not end your play-over before an "A" as there will be confusion as to whether you are continuing the play-over or starting the verse. I find the best way to play-over AABA tunes, for example, is usually BA but sometimes ABA.

 

 
 

Sample Play-overs

Here are two samples from the Volume that help to illustrate the principles:
The first is MILES LANE with structure AB ACD. The play-over consists of ACD which gives instant recognition of the tune (A) but brings it quickly to a conclusion (CD) so congregation know that the singing is about to start. Most organists play AB and that means confusion unless something else takes place and all that is left is the pause or worse a rallentando. Note the total absence of any pause or rallentando anywhere in the play-over below. The setting below incorporates a short bridge - the end of section B, and that works really well because that is naturally followed by A so the congregation know exactly where to come in. When I first ran this variation it was perfect from the first note!


Play-over for MILES LANE illustrating first and last lines.


Play-over for NUN DANKET illustrating a fanfare style of start that leaves the singers in no doubt whatsoever!
There's an amusing post-script here: I used this tune with a different set of words and the short play-over above. By the time my congregation realised that I meant it, and it was not a mistake, they all missed the start! (Having a choir might have helped.)

There may have been more to that and I later wrote the second play-over which works well.

 
  What's on-line?

There are lots of hymns on YouTube. One contributor took umbrage when I said that his playing, while exciting perhaps, was not appropriate for a choir let alone a congregation to sing to. You must make your playing steady enough to set the pace and in particular get the timing right into verses. We hope in time to video examples, good and bad, and make them available for download.

So a general point here; if you publish, you will be criticised and I expect that here. But the vast majority of the arrangements work extremely well and mostly now I stick with them making minor adjustments and refinements as I go.

 

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The Complete Hymn
April 2016